Sam Harris on the Afterlife

I still have lots of people who visit the site and comment on an old article I wrote about Dr. Jeffrey Long, and his book claiming the afterlife is real. He based this on thousands of web interviews he conducted over the span of a decade, and he decided, rather unscientifically, the commonality of their experiences somehow proved there was life after death. The comments normally range from someone calling me close-minded for not accepting his pathetic “research”, to accusing me of being ignorant on the subject since I don’t have a PhD.

Well, here’s someone with a formal education who has something lucid to say on the afterlife. Hopefully it’ll shut up these morons that keep showing up on the site.

Comments (7)

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    I didn’t know you could get a PHD in nonsense. People also say that they have out of body experiences, lived past lives, been ubducted by aliens (and a brilliant retardation within a retardation, isn’t funny how alien abducitons in different parts of the world have different looking aliens and abduction stories) have psychic powers and use magic. Obviously, based on the method of research performed by the good doctor, you have to accept ALL of them as true. I mean, if someone SAID it happened than it obviously did!

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    I always thought that myself…
    back when I still believed this as a kid I was convinced that your brain WAS your soul, and i always wondered that last part…
    now as an atheist I still remember how I pondered that its kind of funny

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    Jacob wrote, “he conducted over the span of a decade, and he decided, rather unscientifically, that the commonality of their experiences somehow proved that there was life after death.”

    I agree with that summation of the approach taken in the book, but I feel I need to point out that there is no such commonality shown in Dr Long’s book. People reading it may think there is, but no figures on commonality are presented and the figures that are presented suggest no such commonality.

    I’ve read Dr Long’s book from cover to cover and for every type of experience he gives a percentage of those interviewed who had a given experience i.e. life review, met dead relatives, out of body experience, etc. Not a single one scores 100%. While some individual aspects do have high percentages, there is no suggestion of a common experience i.e. of the nine “proofs” presented, the percentages would suggest that only a very small percentage of people experienced all nine elements.

    If all these people really were going to the “land of the dead”, I would expect the vast majority to experience the same things if the experiences were objective and not subjective (I would also not expect 4% to meet living relatives but that another issue).

    If you get lots of people to visit the Eiffel Tower (which is a real place) and then ask them to describe it then you would expect a very high coloration when those descriptions are compared. You simply don’t see that in Dr Long’s data.

    For those who don’t understand statistics or percentages, let’s take a really simple example. Let’s say that 80% of people experience each of the nine elements of the NDE (near death experience) that Dr Long describes. To be clear this is just to keep the math simple by means of illustrating of how seemingly high individual figures quickly become low ones when you look for commonality. Most of the percentages in the book are not that high i.e. people who experience meeting dead relatives is just 14% (91 people out of 617).

    At first glimpse the illustrative 80% seems like a high percentage and would seem to suggest a common experience. However, for it to truly be a common experience it is not enough that people experience one element; they need to experience ALL elements. Dr Long does not give that figure in the book. I wonder why? It would seem pretty important to me. What percentage of NDErs experience all nine elements of this supposedly common experience?

    In the lack of a firm figure, because it is not provided, we can work out the probability of a person experiencing all nine elements by multiplying the percentages of each element together. If we stick the 80% figure to illustrate the mathematical process it would be 80% X 80% X 80% X 80% X 80% X 80% X 80% X 80% X 80% = 13.42%, or in other words 86.58% of people who did NOT have a common experience.

    If people really want to test this out, go through the book and draw out the percentage for each element. Where there is more than one figure (because sometimes more than one study is presented) take the best one. Multiply all nine figures together to get the probability of any one NDEer having all nine elements of the supposedly common NDE. It will be a low percentage!

    If only 14% of people experience dead relatives and only 46.5% of people saw the world from outside their body (page 75 of the book) then on those two fields alone you are down to a percentage probability of 6.5% for a common experience! It’s only going to get lower the more elements you add in!

    There is no common experience and that maybe why all elements are discussed individually in Dr Long’s book with no attempt to give a percentage for a true common experience?

    To return to the Eiffel Tower analogy, if you asked the people who had visited it questions about their experience you are very likely to find a very high percentage of people seeing a tower, a very high percentage of people hearing others speak French, a very high percentage of people seeing a French flag, etc. Multiplying those figures together would therefore give a high percentage. Which you’d expect for a common experience of a real place.

    It is not enough that people have high percentages for individual elements. If 100% of people report seeing a metal tower they could be in Blackpool in the UK. If 100% of people report hearing people talk French, they could be in Quebec. If 100% of people report seeing a French flag they could be in Marseille.

    It’s only when you combine the figures that you get a true reading of the commonality i.e. if 100% report seeing a tower, hearing French, and seeing a French flag, then you have a better idea they are all in the same place having a common experience. You’d expect a high figure if all people had really been at the Eiffel Tower.

    If 80% see a tower, 80% hear French and 80% see a French flag (and not one of the nine elements gets 100% in Dr Long’s study), then you need to know how many saw a tower AND heard French AND saw a flag. If you have no figures to work from (and remarkably Dr Long does not provide ANY figures on commonality) then what you can say is based on the data you have there is a 51% chance of you experiencing all three (0.8 X 0.8 X 0.8 X 100 = 51). Which would mean only half could be said to have the likelihood any commonality of experience; even with high individual figures.

    I’m probably laboring the point here, but the bottom line is if the “afterlife” people experienced in Dr Long’s study did indeed have any commonality then that is certainly not reflected in the figures he gives. If it was a real place being objectively experienced then you would not expect this. You’d expect almost 100% of people to experience all nine elements. You’d expect a common experience (like you would get if you took them to see the Eiffel Tower). You don’t get that at all in the book. It would only be a very small percentage probability of commonality of experience, with the overwhelming majority (over to 99%) all having different experiences, which would strongly suggest it is not a objective experience of a real place.

    A collection of weird, life changing, as yet unexplained experiences? Sure. But the data does not suggest an objective or common “life after death” experience. It suggests just the opposite.

    I’ve read the book, I’ve gone over the data in it, I’m not being “closed minded”, but I can say that the book left me all the more convinced that there is no life after death. I’m sure it will do the same for anyone who concentrates on the figures, notices the glossing over of all inconvenient data (i.e. the 4% who met living people), and observes the figures that are not given as well as the ones that are.

  • avatar

    Will Rodbourne

    lol, I’m just reading through the comments from your original post about Dr. Long – holy fucksticks, what a shitstorm you created there! Seems like you sersiously struck a nerve with this one.

    I also love how random people tell you off for swearing on this, your own website! Call the web police!! xD

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    The full video of the above debate is linked to from Sam Harris’s website. It’s actually a really good discussion, well worth the 1 1/2 hours, there’s even a moment where Hitchens and Harris nearly disagree 🙂

    I even think that some interesting (but obviously flawed) points are made by Wolpe in particular. In general it seemed to be a much more thoughtful and well-mannered, and hence a much more worthwhile debate than you usually get from a D’Souza or Lane-Craig spouting utter drivel while foaming at the mouth… that of course doesn’t change the fact that one side are arguing for nonsense, but at least the level of debate they offer Harris and Hitchens is somewhat more considered than they usually get.

  • avatar

    Will Rodbourne

    I concur – I watched the whole thing and another debate between Hitchens and Wolpe on the Jewish TV Network, and there’s yet another one between Wolpe and Harris that I have to watch as well.

  • avatar

    Det. Goren

    Dr. Eben Alexander has a very believable NDE which is making the rounds in the media.

    Any response to him?

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